Plans to Harness Chinese River’s Power Threaten a Region

Andrew Jacobs
Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Nu River Valley
The Nu River Valley
Photo: Green Watershed

Originally published in The New York Times

BINGZHONGLUO, China - From its crystalline beginnings as a rivulet seeping from a glacier on the Tibetan Himalayas to its broad, muddy amble through the jungles of Myanmar, the Nu River is one of Asia’s wildest waterways, its 1,700-mile course unimpeded as it rolls toward the Andaman Sea.

But the Nu's days as one of the region's last free-flowing rivers are dwindling. The Chinese government stunned environmentalists this year by reviving plans to build a series of hydropower dams on the upper reaches of the Nu, the heart of a Unesco World Heritage site in China’s southwest Yunnan Province that ranks among the world's most ecologically diverse and fragile places.

Critics say the project will force the relocation of tens of thousands of ethnic minorities in the highlands of Yunnan and destroy the spawning grounds for a score of endangered fish species. Geologists warn that constructing the dams in a seismically active region could threaten those living downstream. Next month, Unesco is scheduled to discuss whether to include the area on its list of endangered places.

Among the biggest losers could be the millions of farmers and fishermen across the border in Myanmar and Thailand who depend on the Salween, as the river is called in Southeast Asia, for their sustenance. "We're talking about a cascade of dams that will fundamentally alter the ecosystems and resources for downstream communities that depend on the river," said Katy Yan, China program coordinator at International Rivers, an advocacy group.

Suspended in 2004 by Wen Jiabao, then the prime minister, and officially resuscitated shortly before his retirement in March, the project is increasing long-simmering regional tensions over Beijing's plans to dam or divert a number of rivers that flow from China to other thirsty nations in its quest to bolster economic growth and reduce the country's dependency on coal.

According to its latest energy plan, the government aims to begin construction on about three dozen hydroelectric projects across the country, which together will have more than twice the hydropower capacity of the United States.

So far China has been largely unresponsive to the concerns of its neighbors, among them India, Kazakhstan, Myanmar, Russia and Vietnam. Since 1997, China has declined to sign a United Nations water-sharing treaty that would govern the 13 major transnational rivers on its territory. "To fight for every drop of water or die" is how China’s former water resources minister, Wang Shucheng, once described the nation's water policy.

Here in Bingzhongluo, a peaceful backpacker magnet, those who treasure the fast-moving, jade-green beauty of the Nu say the four proposed dams in Yunnan and the one already under construction in Tibet would irrevocably alter what guidebooks refer to as the Grand Canyon of the East. A soaring, 370-mile-long gorge carpeted with thick forests, the area is home to roughly half of China's animal species, many of them endangered, including the snow leopard, the black snub-nosed monkey and the red panda.

Clinging improbably to the alpine peaks are mist-shrouded villages whose residents are among the area’s dozen or so indigenous tribes, most with their own languages. "The project will be good for the local government, but it will be a disaster for the local residents," said Wan Li, 42, who in 2003 left behind his big-city life as an accountant in the provincial capital, Kunming, to open a youth hostel here. "They will lose their culture, their traditions and their livelihood, and we will be left with a placid, lifeless reservoir."

As one of two major rivers in China still unimpeded by dams, the Nu has a fiercely devoted following among environmentalists who have grown despondent over the destruction of many of China’s waterways. The Ministry of Water Resources released a survey in March saying that 23,000 rivers had disappeared entirely and many of the nation’s most storied rivers had become degraded by pollution. The mouth of the Yellow River is little more than an effluent-fouled trickle, and the once-mighty Yangtze has been tamed by the Three Gorges Dam, a $25 billion project that displaced 1.4 million people.

For many advocates, the Nu has become something of a last stand. "Why can't China have just one river that isn’t destroyed by humans?" asked Wang Yongchen, a well-known environmentalist in Beijing who has visited the area a dozen times in recent years.

Opponents say it is no coincidence that the project was revived shortly before the retirement of Mr. Wen, a populist whose decision to halt construction was hailed as a landmark victory for the nation’s fledgling environmental movement. Although he did not kill the project, Mr. Wen, a trained geologist, vowed it would not proceed without an exhaustive environmental impact assessment.

No such assessment has been released. Given the government's goal of generating 15 percent of the nation's electricity from non-fossil fuel by 2020, few expect environmental concerns to slow the project, even if the original plan of 13 dams on the Nu has for now been scaled back to 5. "Building a dam is about managing conflicts between man and nature, but without a scientific understanding of this project, it can only lead to calamity," said Yang Yong, a geologist and an environmentalist.

Some experts say that China has little choice but to move forward with dams on the Nu, given the nation's voracious power needs and an overreliance on coal that has contributed to record levels of smog in Beijing and other northern cities. Still, many environmentalists reject the government's assertion that hydropower is "green energy," noting that reservoirs created by dams swallow vast amounts of forest and field.

Also overlooked, they say, is the methane gas and carbon dioxide produced by decomposing vegetation, significant contributors to global warming.

"By depicting dams as green, China is seeking to justify its dam-building spree," said Brahma Chellaney, a water resources expert at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. Mr. Chellaney said that Beijing had also failed to take into account the huge amounts of silt retained by dams that invariably deprive downstream farmers of the seasonal nutrients that have traditionally replenished overworked soil.

That the Nu has remained untouched even as China has corralled most of its rivers is a testament to the isolation of northwest Yunnan, a two-day drive from Kunming along a white-knuckle road carved into the canyon walls. Every few miles are the scars of recent landslides, a jarring reminder of the area’s geologic instability.

Despite the 2004 moratorium, work on the Nu River dams never really stopped, although Huadian, the state-owned hydropower giant, has ramped up planning efforts since the Chinese government removed any obstacles.

Late last month, as dusk fell on Maji, a proposed dam site, the sound of explosions echoed through the valley as workers, toiling around the clock, blasted test holes deep into canyon walls. Li Jiawang, 33, a laborer, said engineers were still trying to determine whether the rock was strong enough to support a dam several hundred feet high.

Huadian did not respond to interview requests, nor did the Ministry of Water Resources. But word that the project is moving forward has already drawn many outsiders, threatening to upend the delicate patchwork of ethnic populations. Hong Feng, 45, a migrant from Hunan Province who recently opened a roadside shop near Maji, said that most of his customers were dam workers from other parts of China. "We’re here to make our fortune, and then we'll leave," he said.

Most of the estimated 60,000 people who are likely to be displaced from the flooded, fertile lowlands do not have that option. They are largely subsistence farmers, and with nearly every level patch of land spoken for, many will be relocated to dense housing complexes like the one in New Xiaoshaba, a 124-unit project begun before the dam project was suspended.

"We used to grow so many watermelons we couldn't eat them all, but now we have to buy everything," said Li Tian, 25, a member of the Lisu ethnic group whose family was evicted from its land and who now works part time in a walnut processing plant.

While local leaders have been tight-lipped about relocation plans, they have worked hard in recent years to cast the project as a gift that will alleviate poverty in one of China's poorest regions.

But Yu Shangping, 26, a farmer in Chala, a picturesque jumble of wooden houses hard by the Nu, objects to the notion that he and his neighbors are impoverished, saying the land and the river provide for nearly all their needs. "We've worked hard to build this place," he said, "but when the government wants to construct a dam, there's nothing you can do about it."

Patrick Zuo contributed research.